She raised the machine gun to her hip, her nails red and glossy against the jet-black metal, flipped the switch to full automatic and let her rip.
Brrrrp. Brrrrp. Brrrrp.
Short bursts. Like a pro. The slugs tore into the dark silhouette. It was over in seconds.
Her husband reeled in the target and counted the holes. "I believe you cut his head off, Babe," beamed local restaurateur Greg Bennett, 23, admiring his wife's handiwork.
"He wouldn't have gotten any further than the mailbox," nodded Linda, 25, a pretty brunet in tight jeans, hazel eyes misty from the pungent aroma of cordite wafting from her smoking Heckler & Koch MP-5.
Just another Saturday night at the BulletStop, a unique gun shop in this macho-and-magnolia heartland, ministering to America's latest strain of Rambo Fever by renting machine guns to anyone with an irrepressible itch to blast away. Owner Paul LaVista allows customers to shoot up whatever they want on his firing range, "as long as it's already dead."
Some blow away old color TV sets, vacuum cleaners or computers gone haywire. Or they might blast red-striped "Commie" bowling pins, maybe string up a popular "Chicken Shiite" poster or zap a paper Russian. With an array of automatic weapons that would make John Wayne salute.
A thousand Ayatollah targets were shot to shreds within days of going on sale at 50 cents apiece.
"I play to the Walter Mitty syndrome," says LaVista, 37, a bespectacled gun dealer who alludes to a past of hush-hush exploits from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean. Office walls are decorated with exotic weapons, bumper stickers like "Poland Has Gun Control" and photos of LaVista amidst black-faced commandos in far-off lands.
"People just want a little excitement in their lives," he says. "Everyone secretly wants to be Rambo or James Bond. But a white-collar worker can't fight back from behind a desk. So I give them a safe, controlled environment to live out their fantasies."
Such acting-out is just the latest twist to New Age Macho: a new American love affair with machine guns, glorified by Hollywood via "Rambo," "The Terminator," "Invasion USA" and, of course, TV's "Miami Vice" and "The A-Team." All star hot machine guns. And a host of cult magazines like SWAT, Combat Arms, Eagle, Soldier of Fortune and Firepower (the latter touts "The Weapons of Rambo" on the November cover) underscore the appeal of a new Machine Gun Chic.
"We've definitely noticed a miniboom in exotic weapons," says Tom Hill, spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates them. Nationwide gun sales have been off for several years. But the BATF counts a dramatic increase in machine gun registrations: 130,000 to date, up from 105,00 two years ago.
LaVista, a congenial, soft-spoken sort, says he's simply exploiting the latest firepower fantasy by renting machine guns to the masses. His business, one of few federally approved rental outlets in the country, is booming. Customers include neurosurgeons, airline pilots, yuppies in BMWs, red-clay cousins in pickups and housewives inspired by gun-loving husbands like Greg Bennett.
"We could be out dancing, but we're here," says Linda Bennett. She comes twice a month to blast away. Greg often sneaks over during lunch to unload a few clips on the sly.
"He's definitely a sick puppy," laughs LaVista, conferring his warmest term of endearment on the gun-toting devotee.
Some couples report that a few sessions with a smoking machine gun put spice back into otherwise dull lives. "Had one guy in his sixties drove down from North Carolina with his wife just to shoot a machine gun," winks LaVista, who opened 12 shooting lanes in a defunct video game parlor in March. "Later he told me it was like a second honeymoon. Said it got the adrenaline flowing in more ways than one.
"Guys bring their dates. They tell me, 'It's better than oysters.' "
Watch out Ruth Westheimer, machine guns are muscling in on your turf. Might Machine Gun Therapy be America's new macho gestalt? If health clubs are the singles bars of the '80s, will Uzi shooting galleries be the bowling alleys of the '90s?
"It's definitely in," declares Virginia Commander, mother of two and associate publisher of Combat Arms and Eagle magazines. She likes lace and frills, but Full Automatic is ecstasy. Incidentally, one special issue bearing that name virtually leapt off news stands earlier this year.
Adds Commander: "Machine guns are sexy."
Under the National Firearms Act, almost anyone can legally own one -- or a bazooka, sawed-off shotgun or other regulated exotica -- if they pass an FBI check to weed out undesirables (felons, drug addicts, etc., need not apply), submit to fingerprinting, fork over a $200 license fee and wait up to 12 weeks for processing. And voila , another Rambo is born. Automatic weapons are banned in the District of Columbia and about a dozen states. Virginia and Maryland allow them.
Machine guns cost upwards of $1,000 apiece to buy, license included. But anyone can mosey into LaVista's and rat-tat-tat with a 650-round-per-minute MP-5, the German-made "Mercedes of machine guns" that has surpassed the Israeli-made Uzi as the gun of choice with the Secret Service and the Army's elite Delta Strike Force.
Or they might sample the 1,200 rpm Ingram Mach-11, favorite of Colombian dopers, or the clunky, but accurate Thompson submachine gun, the "Chicago Piano" that Al Capone favored, triggering the term "Tommy gun." Ithaca stakeout guns, devastating pistol-grip 12-gauge shotguns a la Mad Max, can also be sampled, along with assorted pistols.
It only costs money: $10 to rent a machine gun, plus a $3.50 range fee and 9mm ammo ($10.75 a box). On full auto, a 50-round box lasts about 2 seconds. Some locals drop upwards of $200 a session. Or they bring their own guns, like Greg Bennett, who carries a licensed 9mm pistol in his pants and a derringer in his pocket. "I feel naked without my guns," he says.
Linda packs a .22 automatic in her purse. Would she ever use it? "If it came down to them, me, or one of mine, I'd do it in a heartbeat," she says.
Indeed, the adrenaline is pumping as the Bennetts arrive, their 2-year-old parked at home with a sitter. Greg pulls their other "baby" from a guitar-sized black vinyl case: a state of the art $2,000 H&K machine gun with silencer, purchased after a few dates with a rental. Gasps of admiration all around.
A five-tour veteran of Rambo -- the movie -- he served on the front row two dozen times in "First Blood." "Every time he used an MP-5, I yelled 'Awright!' " he says. For his birthday, Linda bought him 1,000 rounds of ammo. "It's a power trip," he says, jamming in two 34-round clips for a go at a sinister silhouette called "The Marietta Maggot." "It's as far as you can go. Just having one makes you feel good. If a civil war starts, this gives me an advantage. It's my insurance for the future. I'm a little paranoid about the state of the world."
Frankly, antigun groups are a bit paranoid about machine gun enthusiasts. A machine gun was used to murder Denver talk show host Alan Berg and a state trooper in Arkansas. An Uzi was used in the McDonald's massacre in California, but it was semiautomatic. Paramilitary groups, terrorists, survivalists and neo-Nazis pack them. And they remain the "weapon of choice for drug deals in Miami," says BATF spokesman Hill.
"I have no problem with people who want to blaze away on a range -- as long as you keep it there," says Josh Sugarman, spokesman for the Coalition to Ban Handguns. "But it's scary when people say, 'I think I'll go buy one.' "
Officials count only two cases where a "legally registered machine gun was used to commit a crime," says Hill. It's the thousands of illegal weapons that do the damage -- not gun buffs like Bennett.
Miami reigns as the illegal machine gun capital of America. "They go hand in hand with the dope culture," says Dan Conroy, 42, BATF special agent in charge there. Of 3,038 illegal weapons confiscated by federal agencies in South Florida since 1982, half fell into the machine gun or silencer category. Silencers are counted separately, and one of every three illegal machine guns sported one for use "as an assassin's weapon. They're used very frequently down here."
Kinky weapons go with the turf. No flame throwers yet, but Miami undercover agents recently busted two renegade Green Berets for hawking stolen military ordnance: claymore mines, howitzer rounds, grenades and C-4 plastic explosives. Both got long prison terms.
But illegal machine guns baffle their trackers. Consider a semiautomatic Uzi, AR-15 or M-11. They can be bought without a license -- untraceable -- but easily converted with a kit. Like a full automatic, kits must be registered. But virtually any gun buff with access to a machine shop can pull it off. And gun magazine ads still offer to grandfather conversion kit buyers into full auto heaven with kits made before the law took effect.
Federal officials say seizures of illegal machine guns are running twice that of last year, after agents busted an Atlanta factory charged with making illegal kits and seized inventory. Why the popular demand? To snuff squirrels? To make burglars think twice? Why would anyone want to shoot a machine gun?
"It gets rid of your frustrations," says Ginger Tuell, 39, a frequent shooter who works with her husband, Chuck, a manufacturer's representative. "Now when people cut in front of you on the expressway, you don't have to give 'em the bird anymore. You just come in and shoot a machine gun."
She prefers the H&K MP-5. "I was impressed with how easy it was to sight, the lack of kick. I hit the bowling pin the first time. I was even shooting from the hip. It was just like using a good tennis racquet."
"It's a fad," says Andy Molchan, who represents 15,000 federally licensed firearms dealers as their trade association president. "Machine guns have always been on-again, off-again, but we're definitely in an on-phase.
"We're living in a very macho atmosphere and machine guns are macho weapons. But how do you explain that gun sales are down and interest in the Rambo stuff is up? Maybe it's like the guy who subscribes to Playboy, but is faithful to his wife anyway. You've got a lot of people in the thinking stage."
Law enforcement officials are puzzled, too. "If you're talking household protection," says one federal agent, "there are more suitable things than a machine gun. A shotgun with buckshot is far more devastating at close range."
"The idea is to cause shock and trauma," says Paul LaVista, launching into Machine Gun 101. "So for multiple shots you start low and work up the target." He clutches an Uzi, demonstrating how to switch from single shot ("boring") to "rock and roll -- the only kind of rock and roll I can listen to."
His eyes are agleam. "You might not believe this, but I love this as much as you do."
A band of sick puppies hangs on every word. "We're thrill seekers from way back," says Danny Walsh, 27, an asphalt paver, stepping out with two friends for his first dance with an Uzi.
"We get so many stuffed shirts, I love to get guys like you who are into it," says LaVista, adroitly huckstering a little macho. "Just remember, these aren't regular bowling pins. They have a red stripe. They're Commie bowling pins. Who's gonna be first?"
"Aaaaaaargh!" yells Danny, jamming in a clip, red-blooded American macho in the air.
"Awright!" says Paul. "Kick ass!"
Brrrp. Brrrrrp. Brrrp. Pins go sprawling. Walsh laughs that he has found just the thing to keep estranged wives at bay. He is invited to try an M-11, at 1,100 rounds per minute. "Just use it like a garden hose," instructs LaVista.
"OOOOOOOeeeeee!" yells Walsh, another $10 down the drain in three seconds. After two friends get their kicks, LaVista proclaims: "You guys have just qualified as sick dogs." Total tab: $147.47.
"I've heard a lot of horror stories about pirates in the Caribbean," says Daryl Bowman, 45, a portly barber. He wanders in wearing shorts and Topsiders. His skin is pasty. He's going to need sun screen and a machine gun to be prepared for an upcoming Bahamas cruise, he figures.
"I want something reliable to take somebody out if I have to," he says.
LaVista suggests: a 9mm submachine gun "for close in," a shotgun to take out pirates coming over the side ("believe me, I've been there") and a .45 for an Alamo-style last stand. He fondles several weapons. Then it's on to the range.
"I'm just a beginner," says Bowman, moments before sending bowling pins spinning into the armor-plated backstop with an MP-5.
"Your wife could fire this as easy as you can," says LaVista. "The hotter it gets, the better it shoots. Now stitch it from the navel to the neck." Brrrp. Brrrp. "Let the weapon work for you. You don't have to spray it like Hollywood." Brrrrp. Brrrp.
"Fantastic!" says Bowman, stitching the maggot, then parking another bowling pin in the gutter.
"With one of these," says LaVista, "you can put more holes in a boat than they can plug." But how do you handle pirates boasting bulletproof Kevlar hulls? "Put your shots in the engine, or use armor-piercing shells ."
"Will they work?"
LaVista grins: "Like a hot knife through butter."
The raw power of the guns and the smell of cordite drives some customers a little wacky. One brought in a Chinese-made computer that never worked and cut loose. "Tore it to shreds," recalls LaVista.
Another schlepped a wayward vacuum cleaner for its coup de gra ce. But it refused to die. "The thing was self-propelled," says LaVista. "So when we plugged it in, it started running all around. Took about 12 rounds to kill it."
Neighbors never complain about the noise. "This is Georgia," says LaVista, "not the People's Republic of Massachusetts."
Hardly a hangout for subversives, the BulletStop draws all kinds. O.W. (Rusty) Rust, 41, a salesman who shoots as a hobby, recently showed up in tie and blue blazer to fire an MP-5. "For some people, it's the fantasy of a lifetime to shoot one of these things," he said.
"My favorite is the Thompson," says Dave Hepler, 39, a flight inspector who wanders over from duty at the nearby Naval Air Station. "I like to imagine I'm living in the days of Eliot Ness."
LaVista presses splintered bowling pins on their killers as trophies for the office desk. "You want a body bag for it?" he asks one. It's not uncommon to hear shooters pause to utter Dirty Harry's benediction: "Make my day!"
Chuck Lightfoot, 53, a wine importer and Korean War veteran, called the allure "Sex, pure sex. Excitement and fantasy. It's much more exhilarating than a three-martini lunch."
And if the boss makes you mad, "you can always paint his picture on a bowling pin and blow him away," says BulletStop instructor Dan Meents.
Even ex-hippies wander in. "They used to be long-haired greasers protesting with black armbands," sniffs LaVista, still bitter over Vietnam. "Now they wear fatigues and shoot machine guns. That's where my market is: people who have made an attitude change. They've grown up. Instead of chasing communes, they're chasing Commies."
He runs a tight ship, a cocked .45 on his belt, his 1-year-old son Vince marching about in diapers and a commando T-shirt. A federal license hangs from one wall, a "Happiness Is a Warm Machine Gun" sticker from another. No one is allowed on the range unsupervised. Machine guns are locked up at night. And LaVista spurns drinkers with shooting on their mind.
"It's good, clean fun," he says. "And you won't get AIDS or herpes from a machine gun."